The Woman Who Would Be King
Sarah A. Spitz | October 10, 2014
Before she was erased from history, Hatshepsut had been both queen and king of Egypt.
Hat-who? Was what? We’ve heard of pharaohs and Cleopatra but who was Hatshepsut, how could she be both king and queen of Egypt?
These questions are addressed by Santa Monica-based author and Egyptologist Kara Cooney in her new book “The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt.” Delving deep into the life of this nearly forgotten ruler, the book may raise some eyebrows amongst scholars.
An Associate Professor of Egyptian art and architecture at UCLA, Cooney was co-curator of “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs” at LACMA in 2005. She produced the 2009 Discovery Channel series “Out of Egypt” with her husband, Neil Crawford.
Cooney explains that Hatshepsut “is the longest ruling female in the ancient world. And she doesn’t come to power in a time of war, or crisis or any deep systematic problems in Egypt. She comes to power in a time of great prosperity and without bloodshed, without the things that usually accompany a woman taking power. And she rules for almost 22 years, longer than Cleopatra, longer than anybody in the ancient world.”
She was king in Egypt’s 18th dynasty, nearly 3,500 years ago. Daughter of King Thutmose I, she married her half-brother (a common practice in Egyptian royal lineage) but as King Thutmose II’s queen, had no power of her own. When he died early in his reign, the crown prince Thutmose III, a mere toddler (not her son) was designated successor.
Hapshetsut was the daughter of a highly successful king; raised in the royal house she may have learned how to play Egypt’s political game expertly. As the highest priestess of the highest god, she may have understood how to pull the religious levers of Egyptian society.
When the child king was to be crowned, Hapshetsut was perfectly positioned to be his “co-regent,” ruling both on his behalf and on her own, a delicate balance. Justifying her rule through divine oracles, she was accepted and installed as king.
She engaged in an immense building program while increasing her empire’s prosperity and memorialized herself in religious texts, statues and temples, first as a woman, later as a man, sometimes with crown or beard, with and without breasts.
Cooney told me, “She had to act like a man, dress like a man, and we don’t have details of this, but she had to present herself as a man. No matter how much she could transcend her femininity and become king, as a woman she was still cognizant of the way the system worked. She knew she had to transform herself, rather than expect the system to mold itself to her.”
Hatshepsut is forgotten because most statues of her were smashed posthumously, and images on temple walls scraped off and substituted, even though her name can still be seen beneath the scrape-offs. We know about her through her remaining texts. And thanks to great detective work done by devoted archeologists over the past 100 years, a number of smashed statues discovered in a pit have been painstakingly reassembled, piece by piece.
Cooney’s take on Hatshepsut’s erasure takes a feminist tack. “I would argue that she was forgotten because she was so successful. Hapshetsut was erased on purpose, not remembered on purpose, because as a culture we tend to remember the females who were wildly unsuccessful rather than the ones who were successful. By telling her story, I can look at one woman who was able to find a place for herself at the highest pinnacle of authority in the richest, most prosperous, most powerful land in the ancient world. And if, as a society, we can learn from her why she was erased, then maybe we can transcend our inability to deal with successful female leaders.”
Steeped in decades of scholarly inquiry and but an Egyptologist for the modern age with more than 32,500 Facebook fans Cooney boldly goes where no biographers have gone before. “The only texts we have for Hatshepsut are formal religious inscriptions,” she says. “Without anything personal to drive the story, we just have the kinds of stories that have already been written, about statues and temples and that’s exactly what I didn’t want to do.
“I wanted to make this woman come to life, I wanted to see her decisions and see how she was facing these trials and tribulations and stresses, and to do that I had to conjecture.”
Cooney makes no secret about mixing evidence with speculation. “Very carefully, sentence by sentence and even within a sentence,” she explains, “some of it will have a ‘maybe’ and a ‘likely’ and some of it won’t, so you can get an idea where I am pushing the narrative and where I am not. But I wanted to try to provide a complete life story even if a good 50 percent of it is conjecture.”
She continues, “We’re talking about a time period 3,500 years in the past, and because the Egyptians were so canny about only keeping certain types of records, I don’t think a journalist with this material could have done this. It’s something only an Egyptologist can do.”
Even a 21st century libertine might be shocked by the book’s revelations about Egyptian religious practices, some of which are only now being discussed openly in Egyptological circles. Cooney describes how a ritual of sacred sexual release by the god Amen recreates life on earth each day with the help of the high priestess, known as The God’s Hand.
“It’s funny,” she says, “people look at the ancient Egyptians’ religion and see this elegant, intellectual, removed sort of religious pursuit and it’s anything but. It’s grounded in food and sex and dirt.”
Cooney recommends reading the footnotes for all the details a family paper shouldn’t print. I recommend attending Kara Cooney’s talk at LACMA on Saturday, Oct. 18 at 2 p.m. about “The Woman Who Would Be King.” It’s available in bookstores next week.
Find more information at www.karacooney.com.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.